Self-awareness is the gateway to emotional intelligence

A conversation with Dr Hendrie Weisinger, psychologist, consultant and author of psychometric tools, on the role of emotional intelligence in managing people and coping with pressure.

What were the origins of your research work on emotional intelligence and why did you decide to explore the area related to the presence of EI in business?

I started working on emotional intelligence before I even knew it. As I watched psychiatrists criticise students, I began to think about the issues involved in criticising people – both giving and receiving criticism from others. At the same time, the term ‘feedback’ was just a fashionable term. From then on, I identified criticising and receiving criticism as key to emotional intelligence – as one of its micro-elements. In 1978, when I was in clinical training, I began to take an interest in issues related to ‘anger management’, now also identified as part of emotional intelligence. Before emotional intelligence was even recognised as an issue, I also wrote a book on the subject. The success of the book gave me a lot of publicity and I quickly became a sought-after business consultant for many Fortune 500 companies and elite universities such as Wharton.

While researching issues in psychology and clinical psychology, I noticed that many people had problems expressing their emotions in the work environment, many lacked the skills to deal with anger, anxiety or failure. In the early 1980s, companies did not understand the need for education and training related to dealing with emotions and feelings. It was only a decade later that it was becoming increasingly clear that emotions and feelings were important factors in the success of an organisation – the data clearly indicated that managing emotions, feelings and understanding the feelings of others was key to the success of both the individual and the organisation as a whole. At the same time as emotional intelligence was becoming an increasingly popular issue, I was researching the theory of John Mayer and Peter Salovey. It then became clear that I had just been talking and writing about emotional intelligence for years. The popularisation of emotional intelligence gave rise to issues such as giving and receiving negative feedback and anger management, which became very popular with HR professionals, training and development managers, sales directors, but also all those who manage people.

When I used to say to my clients: “I would like to talk to your staff about anger management”, the answer for a long time was: “No, forget about it. Nobody gets angry here!”. Six months later, I asked the same people, but in different words: “I’d like to talk to your employees about emotional intelligence”, then the answer was: “Great!”. Naming anger and accepting and giving criticism as emotional intelligence made these topics much more interesting to the business world. Anger was seen negatively and emotional intelligence positively. Ironically, the first issue people want to research is actually anger.

What role does emotional intelligence play in effective people management?

Motivating others, dealing with conflict situations, communicating effectively, helping people solve their problems or building teams are all issues that undoubtedly have an impact on the effective management of people. The ability to perform these tasks depends on the emotional intelligence of the individual, so it is fair to say that emotional intelligence is a major factor in how well we manage people or whole companies. The important point to remember is that no one invented emotional intelligence. Like all forms of intelligence, it evolved to help us overcome specific problems, such as conflict resolution – so that we can best adapt to the demands of our environment. Primitive man had an advantage when he could self-motivate and manage his anger. The same is true for today’s managers; those who can manage different emotions and manage the emotions of others have an advantage.

Which aspect of emotional intelligence do you see as particularly important in both professional and private life?

All aspects of emotional intelligence are equally important, both in professional and private life. Depending on the task or situation, some become more important than others. For example, if one is dealing with adversity, then self-motivation and mood management become more important than interpersonal knowledge. On the other hand, if performance is being assessed, interpersonal knowledge will be more important than self-motivation.

What influences the formation of emotional intelligence?

First of all, a mental process called cognitive appraisal, which refers to the way we interpret our environment. Our entire past, attitudes, beliefs, childhood – everything affects how we interpret and feel about our past experiences or the people we interact with, and influences how we react emotionally. For example, numerous studies show that if we perceive a situation (such as a public presentation) as threatening, we tend to experience anxiety and fear. On the other hand, if we perceive the situation as an opportunity, a challenge, we are likely to feel enthusiastic and confident. Depending on how we assess the environment, this is how we emotionally react. If we judge that someone wants to listen to us speak, we will respond with more commitment than if we perceive the situation as a form of interrogation.

It is important that people learn to distinguish between ‘sensory information’ and their interpretations. The sensory data we interpret refers to what we see, hear, touch, feel and taste. Sensory data also relies on the fact that if your customer does not answer your call, your interpretation is that they are not interested in what you have to say. On the other hand, it could be that he didn’t see the call or was too busy to call you back. People need to be sure that their interpretation of the data is accurate. If this is the case, I would advise calling the customer again to clarify the whole matter.

In your books, you have repeatedly stressed that the development of emotional intelligence can be worked on. Why is this worth doing?

Developing high self-awareness is where it all starts. High self-awareness means that you are constantly aware of how you think, what you feel, how you act, how you influence others. Many people forget how their behaviour affects others, including the feelings of those closest to them – their partner and children. High self-awareness is the gateway to emotional intelligence, because you cannot deal with emotions and feelings until you recognise them in yourself and others.

Your latest book, Performing Under Pressure, deals with issues related to the pressure that surrounds human beings. What do you think pressure is in the professional field and where does it come from?

We all have different sources of feeling pressure, but a common one for all of us is competition. Perhaps this is because, since the beginning of man, it has stimulated our primal instincts of ‘we must fight to go further’. For primitive man, competition was about taking on any challenge, whereas today it has a very different meaning. The fact that we live in a global world intensifies competition at all levels. For example, the competition among students to get into the best possible American Ivy League school causes an analogous feeling to that of winning the lottery. Not surprisingly, children are now under more pressure than ever before. We are also talking about a long-term increase in pressure. Thirty years ago, a 30-year-old was not in competition with a 70-year-old and vice versa. This increased competitiveness intensifies the feeling that you always have to be the best, otherwise you might lose your job.

It is worth noting that for primitive man, productivity meant getting food and water – otherwise he might have died. Similarly, today’s students feel that they must always be as productive as possible, otherwise they will be displaced by others. It is no wonder that people who are constantly competing with someone feel the daily pressure. They are the ones who have developed a kind of ‘ranking’ that defines success in comparison to others. Their desire to achieve makes them always want to be the best. This situation puts them under constant pressure – they strive for excellence. We should focus on getting better at developing our own interests rather than the expectations of others, then we can reduce the daily feeling of pressure.

What is the difference between stress and pressure in the professional field?

Stress and pressure differ psychologically in four parameters: occurrence, subjective experience, response and function. In short, stress occurs when the demands made exceed resources. Not having enough money for our needs creates financial stress. Pressure, on the other hand, occurs when we feel threatened and the outcome depends on efficiency. The feelings caused by stress are usually overwhelm and exhaustion, while pressure usually causes feelings of anxiety, fear and embarrassment. When we are feeling stressed, our goal is to reduce the intensity of the demands on us – for example, through relaxation, humour, prioritising or delegating work. When under pressure, our goal is to succeed, so we are focused on responding effectively and completing the task. For example, a pilot who is relaxed feels less stressed, but still needs to reach his destination safely in order to succeed.

More importantly, stress and pressure have different evolutionary functions. Stress spurred humans to action; primitive man was motivated to fight or flee. Putting extra demands on oneself or one’s employees can stimulate action as long as they have the resources to do so; on the other hand, too much stress, however, will be detrimental. In other words, stress can sometimes be helpful, while pressure is never helpful. Its evolutionary function is one of exhaustion. Primitive man who could not cope with pressure was short-lived, and an employee who cannot cope with pressure does not succeed professionally. The primordial man who coped with pressure was given a chance and survived each day that followed. Today, those of us who cope well with pressure have the opportunity for promotion and development.

How do you deal with pressure at work? And what can be the role of team managers in this?

There are a number of solutions to dealing with pressure that can be used in moments when the feeling intensifies, for example, we can learn to reduce distressing symptoms by regulating physical arousal so that we do not experience muscle tension or so-called butterflies – this will allow us to stop and concentrate on the task at hand. Practices such as these are very helpful in moments of feeling under pressure. For those who manage employees and recognise the importance of managing pressure, the following actions can be taken when carrying out daily work duties:

– deal with the pressure they are experiencing, rather than increasing the pressure to do their jobs more effectively;

– create a team (forum) where employees can share feelings of anxiety and pressure; allowing them to experience the feelings discussed can reduce the feelings of pressure they experience;

– develop team managers to communicate in a style that does not create feelings of pressure in employees. When communicating with employees, managers often use phrases such as, ‘This is our big opportunity’, or emphasise how important a project is – with these behaviours they create feelings of pressure in employees. Instead, you can say: ‘There will be plenty of other new opportunities’. This will help team members to focus only on the opportunities, thus increasing the likelihood that they will want to do their best work;

– create an organisational culture of striving for excellence rather than beating the competition.

You have developed an original online course to develop skills for coping with peer pressure. What areas can we develop by taking the course?

The ‘Performing Under Pressure’ online course offers 22 individual approaches to help us become more resilient to feeling under pressure when it affects us. Each of these solutions is easy to implement and requires little practice to use effectively. I have described the solutions as short-term because they are designed to deal with pressure in the moment. The course also helps to instil in a person the four attributes that help us in our daily functioning – confidence, optimism, perseverance and enthusiasm. Together, these attributes form what is known as the COTE of Arms – a metaphorical shield that protects against feelings of being overpowered and helps to cope with pressure. Storing these attributes within ourselves is a long-term solution to support us in coping with pressure. Respondents complete the COTE pre-assessment tool to help monitor their progress in developing these success traits.

What advice would you give to young people starting out in their careers?

The same as I gave my children: follow your interests, believe in yourself, because just because others have a lot of money and a high position does not mean they know more than you or that they know what they are talking about.

Thank you for the interview.


Author: Monika Jagodzińska


Dr Hendrie Weisinger

Psychologist, consultant, speaker, author of psychometric tools and numerous books in the field of emotional intelligence. She specialises in the field of management and clinical psychology. He is a leading authority on emotional intelligence and its importance in performance – both business and personal. He has developed a proprietary approach on dealing with experienced pressure.


The article was published in the monthly magazine ‘Personel & Zarządzanie’, issue 12/2017, Infor Publishing House.